We make our way in the world through individual choice and group dynamics, but we don’t make everything we experience. Much of what we call our “world” is inherited—some good, some bad. We have inherited from the evolution of a brilliantly complex cosmos natural systems that sustain life. These include local ecosystems, regional watersheds, and a planetary climate system spanning the atmosphere and oceans. Some of us are lucky enough to have inherited open democratic political systems.
These political systems don’t run themselves, and they are not guaranteed by any physical law to continue being open and democratic without impediment or interruption. They require our constant attention and participation, and they demand that we take seriously whether or not we are putting in and getting out something that can justly be called democratic republican liberalism—liberal meaning a system that recognizes foundational rights and liberties.
In October 2015, during the Annual Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Managing Director of the IMF, the world’s most powerful fund for stabilizing national budgets, announced that “anything that is macrocritical is the IMF’s business”. This was an historic shift from a view that all that mattered was the hard arithmetic of a given budget to a view that the math could not be honestly rendered without accounting for policies that create ripple effects and feedbacks throughout the entire macroeconomy.
Even as the world’s leaders are moving toward a commitment to sustainable development, climate-smart future-building, and civics and business-ready education for all people everywhere, Donald Trump alleges that “fiduciary responsibility” to his businesses and investors requires him to dodge taxes. The best way to talk about how wrong Mr. Trump is will be to leave him and his bombast out of the story, except to say his ideas about fiduciary responsibility and tax dodging are wrong in every sense of the word.
“A republic… if you can keep it…”
The work of building up to a better outcome has always already begun, before we have a chance to think about the work itself or its necessity.
The act of leading, then, is a recognition of the forces that are converging and a conscious understanding of how to work with them, when and to what purpose.
Having just arrived back from a journey to the heart of our democracy, I am again affirmed in the feeling that our democracy is deeply personal. And so, the success of our democracy depends on the intimate experience each participant has of the democratic process.
Historically, when observers to the Bretton Woods institutions would raise issues of macrocritical value distortion, they were generally told “That’s not our business.” The common practice was to treat environmental damage, the degradation of basic rights, limited access to education, as “unquantifiables” or as “social issues”. IMF leadership would refer to the founding mission as dealing exclusively with the health or unhealth of fiscal math in a given country—its budgetary solvency. At the World Bank, the mission of ending poverty was not seen as directly linked to the building of basic civic and economic infrastructure required for sustained human development.
So, for a long time, macrocritical considerations would make their way into analysis and reports, but global economic leaders went on about their business without worrying too much about environmental impacts, gender inequality, or systemic multi-directional feedback loops like the climate system.
by Joseph Robertson and David Thoreson
Published in The Guardian, June 6, 2016
The climate system is a unifying ethical field that extends from the physical to the metaphysical and connects your actions to my well-being, and vice-versa, no matter how remote your life is from mine. The Golden Rule we have always treated as an abstract moral recommendation is now visibly playing out its logic in the physical world.
This period in history must be about useful innovations that rescue Earth systems from collapse and dignify human beings everywhere. We must dare to imagine, explore, and remake the limits of our experience, together.
We need to think of economics as something much wider and more diverse than the 2-dimensional graphs we are so used to. Economists, investors and political leaders routinely push us to believe economic progress means expansion over time. When the total amount of goods, services and currency exchanged in a given place expands over a given interval, the assumption is the economy is healthy and access to wealth is generally increasing.
Critics of these many thinkers argue this is linear thinking, that it leads to irresponsible consumption, an ongoing incentive to hide waste and collateral damage, and that a more natural and responsible economic paradigm would be what is called “the circular economy”. In this view, things are situated as they are; we use some of these things and fashion them into others; ultimately, it is our use of things that gives value, but everything can continue to intermingle. Ideally, there is no net waste, and so, the economy is circular.
The contest between linear and circular economic thinking suggests a binary opposition in which the human economy is oriented either toward profit-driven planned obsolescence or toward responsible reusability and life-cycle ecological integrity. This binary opposition is set up in no small measure, because we spend so much time looking at bar graphs and pie charts, and other 2-dimensional graphic representations of lived human experience. With such a heavy emphasis on what maps onto the X and Y axes, we end up looking for improvements to the graphic situation, without always getting down to what happens at the level of person to person human interaction.
Measuring value at the human scale is a very different task from understanding whether a national economy produced more exchange last year than the year before. In any small human community—a family, two friends hiking, a basketball team, a group of ten students hoping to master a foreign language—decisions are informed by values that are determined only partly by what is visible in the conventional macroeconomy, only partly by what is visible in a more intimate microeconomic assessment.
What connects my actions to the life of someone on the other side of the planet is hard to identify, but real, active, and can be mapped by science, ethics, faith, or data. Most of what gives value to human endeavor touches the economy, but has its roots in something more nuanced, more personal and more complex. Much of what motivates our consideration of value exists in the dark spaces between the visible connections.
Jacques Derrida once explained, in a tour de force lecture at Villanova University on religion, deconstruction, ethics, and truth-seeking, that “absolute unity would be a catastrophe”. Before you can have human intelligence, you first have to have darkness and light, gravity and what it pulls in, or what works around it, hydrogen, helium, carbon and everything else, and enough difference and complexity that we can get to cellular biology and red blood cells that use iron to carry oxygen throughout our entire body, to our brains, eyes, fingertips. Only with difference can we come to exist in our complexity.
If our economy were truly 2-dimensional (adhering strictly to a linear or circular model), it would be a catastrophe, because virtually nothing of human experience as we live it would be of any value. Our economy is much more like an always evolving biochemical technicolor bird’s nest than it is a line, an arc, or a circle, and this complexity is how and why we are able to talk about value. It is full of connections, overlaps, interferences, and color, and all of these interacting features work together to give us the economic map and driving forces we experience.
Complex intermingling is what human intelligence is made of. Economics is about how human beings live with it. We need to embrace complexity, honor the ecology of our experience, and learn to talk about human socio-political dynamics that are always evolving through values that reside in the dark spaces where something unquantifiable makes the difference.
[ The Note for May 2016 ]
by Joseph Robertson
Published in The Guardian on April 25, 2016
Would it surprise you to learn that governments, oil companies, NGOs and major investors are coming together to map—and to motivate—the decarbonization of the global economy?
The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC) is a policy-focused alliance of national and subnational governments, intergovernmental agencies, businesses and institutional investors, nonprofits and stakeholder networks. It was launched on the first day of the Paris climate negotiations, and its mission is simple: to collaborate across borders, across sectors, sharing information, know-how and capacity, to build the most economically efficient tools for decarbonization into every nation’s climate plan as soon as possible.
In the Paris Agreement, 195 nations acknowledge “that climate change is a common concern of humankind,” and agree to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on … intergenerational equity.” Intergenerational equity refers to the ethical principle that we should not discount the cost of harm when it falls on future generations. A number of other broad, basic, and also pragmatic ethical principles accompany intergenerational equity as the foundation for both national and international climate action, but it is necessary to take a moment and absorb the significance of this particular element of the world’s first universal agreement on climate action. That intergenerational equity should be a principle guiding how governments plan for and respond to climate disruption suggests a new baseline for international law: actions that project harm and degradation into the future must be avoided.